Director: Henry King
By Roderick Heath
Henry King was a director who evolved with movies from the silent era to sound and then the threshold of Hollywood’s first great decline. As with many luminaries of that heyday of studio filmmaking, his last few films, including neutered adaptations of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, were a flat end to a good career. Nevertheless, King made some of the best, most substantial Hollywood films of the 1940s, including The Song of Bernadette (1942), The Black Swan (1942), A Bell for Adano (1945), and his masterpiece Twelve O’Clock High (1949), movies in which he mustered a spacious, sober, humanistic intensity worthy of William Wyler and George Stevens. He benefited especially from collaborating with 20th Century Fox titan Darryl F. Zanuck, taking the hefty, detailed productions Zanuck could set in motion and turning them into excellent cinema. Captain from Castile stands apart in that run of good films for being an attempt to revive, in a rigorous, grown-up fashion befitting the more muscular, realistic postwar mood, the period melodrama and the swashbuckler, genres that had lost traction during WWII. The film is also worth attention for being just about the only English-language film of note to deal with one of history’s most pivotal incidents: the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez. Sporting an unusually strong lead performance by Tyrone Power, it’s a minor gem of high Hollywood’s Technicolor filmmaking.
Power plays Pedro De Vargas, a privileged, but decent young caballero in 16th century Spain who, when out riding one day, meets his oily neighbour De Silva (John Sutton), a bigwig in the local Inquisition (or, as it’s inaccurately called here, the “Santa Hermandad,” the Spanish rural police of the time). A slave of De Silva’s, whom he was trying to force to convert to Christianity, has escaped, and Pedro decides to help, utilising his superior hunting skills to track the slave. He finds, however, that the slave is Coatl (Jay Silverheels), a kidnapped Aztec prince he knows and likes, and instead of handing him, over gives him money to help him make his escape. Power also helps a young woman, Catana Perez (Jean Peters, making her film debut as a last-minute replacement for Linda Darnell), who is harassed by some of De Silva’s goons. Pedro takes her back to the tavern where she works, and meets Juan Garcia (Lee J. Cobb), a recently returned colonial who’s grown rich in Cuba and is now seeking to extricate his mother from the clutches of the Inquisition. Pedro himself falls foul of the Inquisition, as De Silva, infuriated at Pedro’s interference with business, has the entire De Vargas family arrested, including his respected former soldier father (Antonio Moreno) and his 12-year-old sister (Dolly Arriaga). De Silva has the girl tortured, and she dies, earning De Silva one of film history’s most memorably lethal stares from Power.
Luckily, in his plan to get his mother out, Garcia has bought a job as a turnkey in the local prison; Garcia’s mother has died before she was scheduled to be burnt at the stake, so he helps the De Vargas clan escape instead. Just before the appointed hour for the breakout, De Silva comes to demand a confession from Pedro in his cell, but Pedro’s been smuggled a sword by Cobb. After a speedy duel, he delivers a mighty comeuppance: he fools De Silva into renouncing God before running him through. A thunderous horseback chase follows as the family and their helpmates, including Catana, who’s smitten with Pedro, flee across country. Forced to separate into two groups, with the others heading to Italy, Pedro, Garcia, and Catana make it to a seaside port. They decide to sail to Cuba, and join up with the expedition Cortez is planning. Once signed on with Cortez (Cesar Romero), Pedro encounters the expedition’s appointed priest, Father Romero (Thomas Gomez), and confesses what he did to De Silva. Romero gives him the penance of having to pray for De Silva’s soul, and tears up the arrest warrant sent out by the Inquisition. But as Cortez’s expedition penetrates the Mexican interior and wars with the natives, Pedro gets a shock when De Silva turns up. Having recovered from his sword wound, he’s been sent as an emissary to make peace between the Spanish authorities and Cortez and set up a branch of the Inquisition in the New World.
Captain from Castile was based on a noble doorstop of a bestseller by Samuel Shellabarger. It shares aspects with other films based on such popular tomes, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Anthony Adverse (1936) and Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1947: in fact, Linda Darnell jumped ship to star in that), in straining to include the huge, incident-packed sweep of that brand of florid pulp. This attempt results in some narrative diffuseness, sheering off the novel’s last act in favour of an interesting in medias res conclusion depicting Cortez and his by now multinational, conglomerate army of followers marching on the island capital of Tenochtitlan. Captain from Castile was, of course, made some 20 years before the revisionist strand of cinematic history gained traction, and the historical events here are painted in the legendary, rhetorically triumphant terms classic Hollywood was fond of. Nonetheless, the film doesn’t mince many words about Cortez’s motives as a greedy adventurer and presents an interesting portrait of the man, played with wit as well as bravado by Romero. Cortez is offered as something of an historical used car salesman in cavalier’s clothing, using a beaming demeanour and professional veneer to conceal his awareness of how far out on a limb he is. He bluffs both his Spanish masters and the Aztecs as he convinces his men with the argument not to accept the bribes of gold the natives offer when the whole caboodle can be gained. His most memorable scene comes when threatened with the wrath of the Aztec gods by a prince, he has a canon pound an idol, and asks whose wrath the prince thinks could be worse.
Real incidents of Cortez’s adventure are woven with some finesse into the narrative, and the film’s opening scrawl proudly announces that it was shot in many of the real locations through which Cortez moved. Cortez’s lover and translator, La Malinche or Malina (Estela Inda), the slave who is often depicted as both mother of Mexican culture (and one of Cortez’s sons), and also the model of the phrase “Malinchista,” akin to Quisling or Benedict Arnold to denote a disloyal Mexican, is glimpsed as an exotically dressed, Pocahontas-like icon of cultural bridging. In one of the film’s more cunning, colourful incidents, Pedro is assigned to watch over some treasure, handed over to the Spanish, stowed in the peak of a pyramid. That structure proves, in a pure Indiana Jones moment, to be riddled with secret passages through which some of Cortez’s rebellious men manage to make off with the treasure whilst Pedro’s distracted by a drunk and violent Garcia. Told by Cortez to find the treasure or be hung, Pedro tracks the thieves on board one of the expedition’s ships. After recapturing the loot, undoing the rebels, and being gravely injured in the process, Pedro is promoted to captain, hence the title, and this is also the cause of Cortez deciding to burn his fleet rather than risk a repeat.
As Cortez’s army drives deeper inland, Pedro has to hole up in the village of Cholulu with the advance guard whilst Cortez doubles back to fight a battle. The town becomes a kind of frontier not just of empire, but also of the spirit and history, as Pedro encounters Coatl again, restored to his homeland and rank, who pointedly asks Pedro why he’s invading Mexico and what value the religious polarisation the white man is bringing has. Whilst the battle Pedro and Coatl have with De Silva is arch melodrama, it also prefigures a theme about the first severing point of the Old World from its certainties. Paracutin, the famous volcano which grew out of a farmer’s field, was still in eruption at the time of the film’s production, and King made sure to make use of this extraordinary example of nature as art director, including its plumes of smoke in as many shots as possible. Towards the end, as Cortez musters military might, Father Romero brings together a congregation of Spaniards and Aztecs in front of the rough-hewn crucifix he’s set up, delivering a sermon that serves as an institution of a New World religion, whilst in the background volcanic smoke imbues the frame with an apocalyptic lustre. It’s a moment that manages to be spiritually engaging whilst avoiding piety, as well as framed and visualised with the keenness of a Renaissance painting. The variegation repeats in the very last shot of Tenochtitlan bathed in streams of golden sunlight like the promised land itself at the end of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) but also with the heavy cloud looming, as if the whole world’s on a tipping point between the great and the tragic.
Whilst it encompasses themes of substance, then, Captain from Castile is still 90 percent rollicking tall tale in the straightforward, old-school mould. King, however, avoids action except for the central set-piece escape from prison; he’s really more interested in atmosphere, and in the intense ambient emotion that hovers about Pedro and his rage at De Silva, a rage that’s easily empathetic thanks to Sutton’s terrifically arrogant performance. It’s interesting that the usual revenge plot, which has easily identifiable echoes in modern movies like Gladiator (2000), is essentially ditched less than halfway through. What develops when De Silva turns up in the New World is decidedly off-beat, as Pedro struggles to contain his hate and obey Romero’s prescription.
In an early scene, when Pedro visits Luisa De Carvajal (Barbara Lawrence), his lady fair, it’s in a garden that’s a swooning feast of blossoms, an image that is an encapsulation of a romantic, chivalric past the film begins immediately and steadily to deconstruct, laying bare class and religious injustice as central to the way the Old World works. Luisa’s father, a marquis, (George Zucco) is a supposed friend of Pedro’s father, but won’t aid them when the Inquisition comes knocking and promptly marries Luisa to De Silva once Pedro’s out of the picture. Once in the New World, romance blossoms between Pedro and Catana, who’s anxious that her low-class status can never erase Luisa in his heart, and gets the expedition’s surgeon and astrologer Botello (Alan Mowbray at his most dissolute) to sell her a love charm. After she and Pedro dance in the inevitable flamenco scene, with both actors scorchingly sexy, Pedro suddenly erupts in fiery passion for her and Luisa freaks out, afraid she’s bought his love unfairly. Peters is surprisingly deft in her debut performance, long before Howard Hughes ruined her.
There are interesting undercurrents, too, in Cobb’s role as Garcia, who warns Pedro early in the film that he turns murderous when he’s drunk and so stays clear of the booze. When the treasure thieves get him liquored up, Garcia’s ranting makes it clear that the cause of his madness is his rage at the Inquisition, and when De Silva turns up, it’s revealed that Garcia actually strangled his mother in the prison to save her from a hideous death. “We talk of gold, but maybe we mean something else,” Garcia states vaguely, pointing to the film’s underlying theme. In the end, someone strangles De Silva in his tent after he’s had a heated exchange with Pedro, who is immediately arrested and sentenced to be hung. The killer is actually Coatl, eking out some revenge of his own, and he confesses to the murder in time to save Pedro. But as Cortez enters to tell Pedro of his good fortune, Catana, who has been waiting with Pedro and thinking Cortez has come to perform the execution, stabs Pedro in the chest to save him from the ignominious death.
I thought that would have been a brilliant end, but it’s quickly revealed that Pedro’s not mortally wounded, and when he recovers, the expedition continues on to its destined end. That last-minute hesitation from ironic tragedy underlines the film’s failure in the end to work up enough narrative confidence and originality to make it build the mythical drive of the greatest screen adventure-melodramas. The screenplay, written by Lamar Trotti, who also produced under Zanuck’s aegis, is spotted with some gilded clichés, including variations on “It’s too quiet!” and “I wish the drums would stop!”, and the finale is a bit rushed in detail—what happens to Coatl is oddly left by the wayside. But Captain from Castile is thoroughly worthwhile for anyone who likes their adventure high, villains villainous, history dubious, and heroes hot. It’s also a must for Technicolor fetishists, thanks to the work of DPs Arthur E. Arling and Charles G. Clarke, who render locations in the cinematic equivalent of illuminated manuscript.